Last night, I got into an interesting debate over Twitter with Ari Herzog among others over the topic of whether social media is MEDIA. Because Twitter isn’t really the appropriate forum for laying out one’s arguments, I thought to transfer it here in hopes of advancing it some. Or at least getting my thoughts down.
It all started when Ari tweeted:
I casually responded:
@ariherzog ain’t social media… y’know… MEDIA? that there is a fundamental problem of modern journalism.
That launched a series of back-and-forths with others jumping in that was one of the more interesting Tweet-Debates I’ve had to date.
My basic point was that if major news sources embrace social media, then that basically puts the value proposition of journalism into jeopardy, because I view social media as a new form of media. Why subscribe to a RSS feed from the LA Times when I can subscribe to RSS feeds from the people and organizations that the LA Times reporter spoke to to get his facts?
It turned out, Ari had a different definition of “Social Media”:
Well, can’t argue with that. If he meant by “social media” stuff like people mashing up maps with data… okay, then journalism has no issues at all.
But what if he’s wrong? What if “social media” isn’t just a stand-in for the undefined term “Web 2.0”? What if it really is a new form of media — transfer of information from one party to another?
I thought it worthwhile to lay down my arguments on… er… “paper”.
I posit that “social media” is in fact a new form of media. One made possible by the networked world brought on by cheap computing and cheap sharing of data via the Internet.
Twitter is full of junk, but it can also be a place where individuals, companies, organizations, and governments put out news, facts, and information to the public. Same goes for any other “social media” channel, including blogs, FaceBook, forums, whatever.
The whole magic of social media (indeed the Web in general), to me, is that the gap between “producer” and “consumer” of content narrows and often disappears. We have seen this most clearly in commodity retail, such as travel. Pre-Internet, I had to go call a travel agent to book a flight. In the early days, I went to dedicated “travel sites” like Expedia and Travelocity to book flights, and they in turn booked the flights for me. Today, I can go to any airline website directly and book the flights. Tomorrow, I suspect that airlines will start to send me offers over “social media” channels directly, as Dell does today with @delloutlet. (Is it completely impossible to envision a world where individual airplane owners can directly offer me flights?)
The producers of flights — the airlines — no longer need the mediators like travel agents and even aggregator sites in order to connect with me, the consumer.
Applied to information/news in particular, I think the impact is profound.
The example I used in the TwitDebate was police blotters.
Pre-Internet, newspapers had a person with the job title “reporter” call (or visit) the police department and get the records on the police blotter. This reporter, who is said to cover the crime beat, then writes up the information from the police blotter and sends it to a printing press to be published in a newspaper.
Yesterday, in the early days of the Internet, that same writeup of police blotter information by said reporter would be posted to a newspaper’s website.
Today, with social media, the police department can put the blotter directly onto the departmental website, or provide a RSS feed of all of the info. Any citizen who wanted to know what was going on could either (a) read the police department blotter page on the www.policedepartment.com, or (b) subscribe to the blotter RSS feed.
In this connected world, the “reporter” is no longer necessary. Consumers do not need to purchase the newspaper, or logon to a newspaper’s website, to get information about crimes committed in their neighborhood.
Considering that Ari has a deep background both in social media, and in usage by governments specifically, and spoke at the recent Social Media and Government conference… I’m rather surprised he didn’t see the point. One of the workshops at that Social Media and Government conference was this one:
Practicing Social Media: How To Use Blogs, Wikis, RSS And Other Social Media Tools To Improve Communication With Internal And External Audiences
At this conference, attendees hear high-level presentations on the usage of social media within organizations. Some attendees, though, don’t understand the basics behind these social media tools and how to create and use them effectively.
Unless that “external audience” is limited to credentialed members of the press, seems to me that the government organization that has implemented blogs, wikis, RSS, and other social media tools such as Twitter and YouTube just made the local reporter’s job irrelevant.
What Is the Special Role of a Journalist?
Inherent in the argument is an argument about the role of a journalist in a social media environment. To begin, we might think about what it is that a journalist actually does. Wikipedia’s definition is this:
A journalist (also called a newspaperman) is a person who practices journalism, the gathering and dissemination of information about current events, trends, issues, and people while striving for viewpoints that aren’t biased.
So there are two parts here. First is the “gathering and dissemination of information”. Second is the “striving for viewpoints that aren’t biased”.
The first part is what social media renders moot, once it is widely deployed. When I, as an individual citizen, can go directly to the White House’s YouTube channel… what the hell do I need Katie Couric for? To look pretty while reciting what I can find out for myself in 10 seconds, and already have via RSS?
The counter-arguments may be numerous, but I can think of two.
A) Most people do not know what is important and what is fluff. Trained journalists and editors perform a vital gatekeeping and “pre-search” function to make sure that consumers only receive the important information.
B) Most people do not have access to sources that trained, professional journalists have. Reporters spend days and weeks chasing down a story and getting all of the facts straight. No individual consumer is able to devote that kind of time.
As to the “gatekeeper” argument… the sad fact is that journalists are particularly ill-trained to perform that function. Let’s say Joe, a veteran journalist, is assigned to cover the state supreme court for important legal decisions. Let’s even say that Joe has a law degree, and decided to enter journalism and went to journalism school to learn the trade. Are we to take seriously the notion that Joe with his three years of law school book-learnin’ is qualified to decide whether a particular case is important or not for consumers of that information to know? It’s a ridiculous notion. And error after error in reporting on a technical topic by reporters from every name-brand news organization can be found with even the simplest of Google searches.
The reality is that Joe is going to go talk to lawyers who practice day in and day out before the state supreme court to find out which decisions are important. He’s going to consult the real experts, write up their comments, get the facts through reading court documents or talking to people, and write up that story.
The editor who decided not to run Joe’s story has even less basis in deciding whether the information is or is not important to consumers. She hasn’t even done the gruntwork to find out.
And frankly, this is where the second part of a journalist’s Wikipedia job description — striving for viewpoints that aren’t biased — is strongly implicated. Take a look at this performance by a CNN reporter and ask yourself whether she should be performing any sort of a “gatekeeping” function on information:
The B argument, that common folks do not have access to the sources of information is simply destroyed by social media itself. Let us lay to the side the issue of investigative journalism, a la Woodward and Bernstein; we’ll get to that next. If the source embraces social media, and makes all of the information, news, opinions, whatever available via blogs, RSS, wikis, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and what-have-you… then common folks do have access.
The exception is investigative journalism. When the story isn’t something the source wants to make public at all, then someone who researches it, talks to people, gathers non-public facts, and exposes the truth to the world is providing a simply invaluable service. People like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are rightly heroes for what they’ve done. Even local journalists like Lee Zurik of WWL-TV provides an incredibly important service to the community and to consumers of news with stories like this one. (He won the Investigative Reporters & Editors Medal for that story.)
In fact, one can extend “investigative journalism” to include simply information that is hard to find or get, even if there isn’t active obfuscation by some evildoer going on. The best example in my mind is Michael Yon, an independent journalist who has been providing news and information from the frontlines of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other troubled spots since December of 2004.
The “but” here is that investigative reporting, as important as it is, is not exclusively the province of “journalists”. There is no special skill taught at Journalism School on how to get information, how to ask questions, how to not give up chasing down facts. Investigative reporting isn’t like electrical engineering; it isn’t even like cutting hair. There is literally no training required.
Michael Yon is the perfect example. He’s not a “trained journalist” whatever that means. He’s not even a “trained writer” with degrees in English or what-have-you from prestigious colleges. He’s former soldier who just happened to want to tell the story of what was really going on in Iraq. Here’s his biography from Wikipedia:
At age nineteen, Yon started in the United States Army Special Forces. Due to his bright blond hair, short stature, and physical boastfulness, the other soldiers nicknamed him “Bam Bam“, after the Flintstones character. He killed a man in a bar room fight in Ocean City, Maryland in the 1980s; criminal charges were filed but later dropped. Yon’s first book, Danger Close, details this event and tells the story of his life up to the age of about 20, after he had completed the selection and training process for the Special Forces.
Yon left the service in 1987 and worked in a variety of different business, at one point providing security detail for Michael Jackson. Having learned German and some Polish within the service, he also attempted to work in Poland. He started general freelance writing in the mid-1990s despite having no background in the field. […] He began writing about the occupation of Iraq after the death of two of his Army friends, one of which he had known since High School. He first landed in Baghdad in late December 2004.
So the very special role of investigative journalists turns out to be something anyone with time and inclination can do.
It is particularly telling that Michael Yon began reporting via “social media” — his blog/website. He could have easily chosen to start Twittering, putting docs on Facebook, or using YouTube to put footage up direct to the public. Come to think of it, he has.
What can CNN or ABC News or anyone do to improve this “social media” reporting? Seriously?
In a fully networked world, where governments, companies, individuals, celebrities, organizations… pretty much everybody adopts and implements social media as it was meant to be… and determined individuals like Michael Yon can to “investigative journalism”… what is the special role of journalists again?
Social Media is a Threat to Journalists Because It IS Media
Contrary to Ari’s assertion that social media is just Web 2.0 in different words, I maintain that social media IS media. That MSM (mainstream media) news organizations have started blogs and Twitter accounts is not the story here. That is mere window dressing on the real story, and represents an attempt by middlemen who are being disintermediated to try to stay relevant.
The real story is that social media eliminates the need for middlemen and gatekeepers in the information marketplace. Consumers can — and do — get information they want, more and more directly from the producers of that information, aka, the source. The producers can — and do– provide information they want, more and more directly to consumers of that information through blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and personal websites. That’s the real story.
“Journalists” — defined as people who make their living providing hard-to-find information, often coupled to really good writing or a really attractive face/voice — will still exist. Magazines did not die out with the advent of the telegraph, the radio, TV, or the Internet. There will be a market for talented storytellers and people who look good on video. But more and more, they will be defined not by degrees from Journalism Schools, so-called training, or who their employer happens to be, but rather by the fact that they find hard-to-get info, write really well, or look really pretty.
I further suspect that “media” as we know it today will also survive in some form another. The Internet has not yet eliminated TV news, which in turn has not killed radio news, which in turn hasn’t made newspapers extinct, and so on. But they all will change fundamentally… because they have to.
Because social media is most definitely media.